Canucks’ Jim Benning marches on, with his future still to be determined

The Canucks tied it late in the third and Brandon Sutter won it in OT as Vancouver beat the Minnesota Wild 3-2.

VANCOUVER – Now that top centre Bo Horvat is returning from injury, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has everything he needs.

Except a new contract.

Benning would like one of those, of course. But he knows an extension from managing owner Francesco Aquilini is now pretty much out of his hands and in the team’s. The Canucks, their health restored after December’s injury crisis scuttled their National Hockey League season, will finish well and stoke optimism. Or they will not.

Either way, it seems highly likely that the Aquilinis will allow Benning to finish the season – and his four-year contract – and then review his work and make a decision on their GM. Just as they did in 2008 with Dave Nonis, just as they nearly did in 2014 with Mike Gillis, who worked the trade deadline but was fired in the final week of the regular season with four years and $8 million still owed to him.

Benning, with support from hockey-operations president Trevor Linden, will continue to manage the Canucks through the Feb. 26 trade deadline with his eye on the future.

That means Benning and Linden will make big decisions on looming unrestricted free agents Erik Gudbranson and Thomas Vanek, who will be re-signed or traded. What happens with Gudbranson, 26, a benchmark acquisition by Benning who has yet to fulfill expectations in Vancouver, could affect the Canucks for years.

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“I’m going to keep doing the work,” Benning told Sportsnet as the Canucks prepared to end their winter break with a road game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday. “We’re on the right path with the drafting and the development of our young players. We’re going in the right direction. We’re partway through where we want to be.

“My hope is I get to continue on and keep drafting and developing these players. I think the future’s real exciting. When we talk about the young players we have in our system, and the way we started the year when we were competitive in all our games, I just see that continuing.

“We’re going to keep doing things the right way, and I’d love to come back. But that’s not my decision.”

The Canucks’ performance over their final 37 games will likely affect ownership’s decision. Under Benning and Linden, the team is far ahead of where it was – except in the standings.

Nearly all of the Canucks’ unprecedented heap of prospects were brought into the organization by Benning. And those who were already Vancouver property, like Horvat, Ben Hutton and Jacob Markstrom, have developed under his watch.

But a few good trades (Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, Derrick Pouliot) have been offset by a couple of spectacular misses (the $36-million signing of free agent Loui Eriksson, drafting Jake Virtanen sixth overall ahead of William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and others).

Still, the pain the Canucks and their fans have endured with bottom-three finishes the last two seasons was predicted back in 2014 given the aging, contract-encumbered team and barren talent pipeline that existed when Gillis was fired after the most successful run in franchise history.

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On Dec. 5, when a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes was blackened by Horvat’s broken foot, the Canucks were a surprising 14-10-4 under new coach Travis Green.

After they lost five of their top 10 players in a span of 2 ½ weeks, Vancouver went on a 2-11-2 freefall before beating the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets last weekend.

That five-game road trip saw top defenceman Chris Tanev (facial injury), important centre Brandon Sutter (hip/groin) and first-line winger Baertschi (broken jaw) return from injuries. Horvat should play Saturday in Edmonton or Sunday in Winnipeg, but not both games. Derek Dorsett (spinal injury), alas, is never going to play again.

But the Canucks return from their break with something they haven’t had in a while: health and optimism.

“I like the way our team played at the start of the year,” Benning said. “I thought we were fun to watch. We played fast, we got the puck, we moved it up ice, we came through the neutral zone with speed. Whatever game we had, we showed up. I thought for the first time in three years, going into every game we had a chance to win. That hope that we had … that was the tough part with all the injuries.

“I’m hoping we can get back to where we were before, where we’re competing in all the games, our young players are getting better and we can win our share of games.”

Complicating the decisions the Canucks need to make before Feb. 26 is uncertainty over the decision Danny and Hank Sedin will make after the season is over. If the twins, who are still productive depth scorers at age 37, want to play next year, it will affect how much need the Canucks have for Vanek.

But if the Sedins occupy NHL roster spots next fall, will there be room for talented prospects like Elias Pettersson, Adam Gaudette and Kole Lind to make the team?

“People said before the season: ‘Why did you sign Thomas Vanek? It’s going to block out Brock Boeser,’” Benning said, referring to the Canucks’ rookie-of-the-year candidate. “But it has had the opposite effect. Thomas has been a good influence on Brock and helped him with his game on the ice and off the ice. If the Sedins come back, they’ll just be a positive influence. There’s a lot behind the scenes that people don’t see where they are still a big influence on our group.

“The trade deadline is not for another five or six weeks, so we have time to make those decisions. We’ll try to navigate our way through it the best we can.”

And it will be Benning’s hand on the rudder.

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